November 22, 2010

An Inoffensive Line?

My bi-weekly column for SB Nation DC.



Good football teams win the battle up front game in and game out. Ask the 1991 edition of the Washington Redskins. The Hogs allowed opposing defenses to sack quarterback Mark Rypien just nine times on the year en route to a Super Bowl trophy. A good offensive line can dictate the line of scrimmage and control the ball, giving their team a legitimate chance at winning every single week.
After experiencing so much success behind one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history, one would expect the Redskins to always remain committed to building from the trenches out. Unfortunately, a lack of attention to detail has recently left the offensive line undermanned and outplayed for much of the past few seasons.
The Redskins started the 2008 season at 6-2, but since they have gone 11-23 largely due to the woeful state of their offensive line. As bookend tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels faded into the sunset, the Redskins failed to address the need for new blood up front. Throughout the past three years, while Washington has struggled to win football games, there has been one constant. The offensive line has been old, injury-prone, and ineffective for the majority of the past 34 games, contributing heavily to the offensive futility plaguing the team.
This season Mike Shanahan added a crucial piece to the puzzle by drafting Trent Williams to play left tackle. While Williams has been reliable, it's the veteran lineman who haven't been holding up their end. The protection for Donovan McNabb has been inconsistent, playing a factor in his erratic play while the run blocking has been horrid for most of the season.
The Redskins are saddled with a bunch of over-the-hill, second rate linemen once again this year, and it has shown. Shanahan was unable to revamp the entire line in just one offseason, and so the likes of Artis HicksStephon Heyer, and Kory Lichtensteiger have been forced into starting roles. Casey Rabach, once a serviceable center, is now a shell of his former self, as he spends most Sundays tripping McNabb or being pushed into him by defensive tackles. Meanwhile Jammal Brown, the tackle the Redskins traded a draft pick away to get this summer, has been ravaged by recurring injuries.
If it's a bad matchup in the trenches, then it's safe to expect little offensively from Washington. Heading into Sunday's game against Tennessee, there was little reason to doubt that the Titansdefensive line, with their complex schemes and pressure-generating tactics wouldn't win the day.
Instead, injuries allowed the unthinkable to happen. The Redskins were force to unveil a new look offensive line, and it worked, tremendously. Now, the operative question must be asked. Is the unit the Redskins were forced to trot out yesterday the answer, in the short-term at least, to the Redskins blocking inadequacies?
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The Redskins surprisingly dominated the line of scrimmage for large parts of the game despite being without Hicks and losing Rabach and Derrick Dockery. The Titans, ranked 11th against the run entering the contest, allowed 107 yards rushing to Washington and were also kept away from McNabb for much of the tilt.
The result was one of the better outings in McNabb's short stint with the Redskins. The offense possessed the ball for over 40 minutes. Kyle Shanahan was able to open up his playbook, as the offense established a rhythm. Meanwhile, the Titans were left gasping for air as the Keiland Williams-Clinton Portis combination proved too much to handle.
When the offensive line plays well, it leads to an improved offensive performance. Though he was sacked three times and threw a costly interception, McNabb made sure to put the Redskins in position to score all day and connected with nine different receivers.
This despite the Redskins using a tackle to play guard and a guard to play center. After Rabach and Dockery went down, the coaching staff threw together a line combination that I'm sure no one expected would be successful. Heyer, normally a tackle, played right guard. Will Montgomery, in his first game all season, played center while Brown, Lichtensteiger, and Williams rounded it out.
I think it's safe to state that Heyer and Montgomery are both utility backups, but yesterday they outplayed the usual starters in Hicks and Rabach. Oddly enough, the latter were featured on Yahoo! Sports' Shutdown Corner No-Pro Team as two of the most disappointing linemen in the NFL. Maybe offensive line coach Chris Foerster missed something when he didn't get those guys out sooner in favor of Heyer and Montgomery.

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